Another False Definition of Repentance

by Glenn Conjurske

It is common for all antinomians to define repentance as a change of mind. The obvious purpose of this is to empty the word of its meaning. William Pettingill says, “Strictly speaking, the word repentance means ‘a change of mind.’ … Since it is not possible for an unbeliever to become a believer without changing his mind, it is therefore unnecessary to say anything about it.”

Pettingill was the right-hand man of C. I. Scofield at the Philadelphia School of the Bible, and similar statements might be found from others who belonged to that camp.

We may grant that repentance is “a change of mind,” of a sort, but we absolutely deny that it is such a change of mind as Pettingill supposes. It is “unnecessary to say anything about” the change of mind for which he contends, since “it is not possible for an unbeliever to become a believer without it.” But the repentance of the Bible is certainly of a different sort than this. It certainly is necessary to say something about the “change of mind” which the Bible demands, else why does God “now command all men everywhere to repent”? Is God so foolish as to command all men to do what it is unnecessary to say anything about? Why did Christ commission his apostles to preach “repentance and the remission of sins” to all nations, if it is unnecessary to say anything about it? Why did Paul preach to all men everywhere he went, from the beginning to the end of his career, “that they should repent, and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance,” if it is unnecessary to say anything about it? Was Paul a fool, to spend his whole life preaching something which it is unnecessary to say anything about?

The plain fact is, though we may grant that repentance is in some sense “a change of mind,” it is not the sort of change of mind which is commonly supposed—-or wished—-by the orthodox antinomians of our day.

Two different things may be meant by “a change of mind.” One of those things may be a legitimate description of repentance. The other certainly is not. When we speak of a change of mind, we ordinarily mean a change of purpose, though a change of mind may refer merely to a change of opinion. Repentance certainly is a change of purpose, though it is certainly not a mere change of opinion. But antinomians capitalize upon a play on words here. “A change of mind” may describe repentance in one sense, but the sense in which they mean it is certainly false.

That repentance is not a mere change of opinion may be proved several ways.

First, except for the insincere, who profess opinions which they do not actually believe, we do not suppose it lies within the realm of possibility to change our opinion, by a mere choice or act of the will. If I believe the sky is blue, I cannot decide to believe it green. We cannot change our opinions. They must be changed, by the force of evidence—-whether that evidence is sound or unsound, false or true. I once believed Calvinism to be the truth, on the basis of what I supposed to be sound evidence. I could not then decide to believe it false. I now know Calvinism to be false, on the basis of sound and solid evidence. I cannot now decide to believe Calvinism true, any more than I can decide to believe I am a woman, or a polar bear. The evidence which formerly convinced me was partial, one-sided, misinterpreted, imaginary, but such as it was it was adequate to my mind to convince me of the truth of Calvinism, and I could not voluntarily alter my opinion. But observe: God now commands all men everywhere to repent. Does he then command impossibilities? No man can decide to change his opinion, and if repentance is a change of opinion, then no man can repent. Thus, in an ill-advised attempt to make repentance easy, our antinomian preachers have actually made it impossible, though the impossibility may never appear to them, who evidently seldom think anything through, and who are content to say nothing about repentance.

But further, if repentance is a mere change of opinion, the Bible uses all the wrong prepositions with the word, and never the right one. The Bible requires us to repent of or from certain things, but never once requires us to repent about anything. But if repentance is a change of opinion, we must certainly repent about things, not of them.

In the next place, the repentance of the Bible is most obviously a moral thing, but there is nothing moral in a mere change of opinion. Faith itself is reduced, by these antinomian gospellers, to a mere belief of facts—-”salvific (!) facts”—-and thus the whole gospel is bereft of its morality, and the whole difference between the righteous and the wicked is made out to be an intellectual one. The Bible terminology, which maintains a moral difference between the godly and the ungodly has been for the most part abandoned by modern Fundamentalism, so that we hear nothing of the righteous and the wicked, or the godly and the ungodly, but only of the “saved” and the “lost,” or the “saved” and the “unsaved”—-for the “saved” on this plan may be no more righteous or godly than the “unsaved.”

And finally, nothing could be more obvious in the Bible that, whatever repentance may be, it has to do with sin. Those who wish to make it a mere change of opinion seem unable to discover this, though it is written broadly on the very face of the New Testament. “I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” “Suppose ye that these Galilaeans were sinners above all the Galilaeans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” “Joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth.” “Repent of this thy wickedness.” “If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him.” “I shall bewail many which have sinned already, and have not repented of the uncleanness and fornication and lasciviousness which they have committed.” “Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent.” “And I gave her space to repent of her fornication.” “Behold, I will cast her into a bed, and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, except they repent of their deeds.” “And the rest of the men which were not killed by these plagues yet repented not of the works of their hands, that they should not worship devils, and idols of gold, and silver, and brass, and stone, and of wood: which neither can see, nor hear, nor walk. Neither repented they of their murders, nor of their sorceries, nor of their fornication, nor of their thefts.”

We might cite yet other scriptures in proof of the fact that repentance has to do with sin. But the perversity of those who wrest the Bible in order to maintain a false gospel will have nothing of this. Repentance is a change of opinion, and not about sin, but about God. This they think to extract from Paul’s expression “repentance toward God.” But this says nothing of repentance about God. The repentance of the Bible is repentance from sin, and to repent toward God is to do this before him—-with an eye to his offended majesty and his impending judgement. Men may renounce sin to please their wives, or to gain a place in a church or cult, but this is not repentance toward God.

As for “a change of mind,” there is one passage of the Bible which plainly shows us what sort of change of mind repentance is. We read in Matthew 21:28 & 29, “A certain man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, Son, go work to day in my vineyard. He answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented, and went.” If someone wishes to translate this (as the NIV does), “Afterward he changed his mind, and went,” this would at any rate give an essentially correct meaning, though it is weak and anemic. But observe what sort of change of mind this was. It was not a change of opinion, but of purpose, issuing, of course, in a change of course or conduct. We must be careful to state also that repentance is no more a mere change of purpose than it is a mere change of opinion. We may change our purpose a hundred times without one whit of repentance. Repentance is a moral change of purpose, a purpose to forsake sin, and live holy, righteous, and godly. This is perfectly plain, but this passage is obscured by all the popular modern Bible versions, which we are supposed to believe are “more accurate.” The Berkeley Version tells us, “Afterward he felt sorry, and went out.” The New American Standard and the New King James versions inform us that he afterward “regretted it,” and went. But repentance is neither feeling sorry nor regretting it. It is above and beyond either of these. Herod “felt sorry” and “regretted it” before he beheaded John the Baptist, and doubtless afterwards too, but this is not repentance. Repentance is a change of purpose. The liberal modern versions, such as Goodspeed and the Revised Standard Version, quite properly retain “repented” here, but modern Evangelicalism is simply hopeless in its attempts to revise the Bible, understanding no more of Greek than Wuest or Lenski, and precious little of the truth either, marring all that it seeks to mend, and usually, as here, seeking to mend what needs no mending at all. At any rate, it plainly appears from this passage, properly translated, that repentance is “a change of mind” in the sense of a change of purpose. “Changed his mind,” however, is a very weak and deficient rendering, for repentance is a moral change of mind, perfectly expressed by the English word “repent,” whereas “a change of mind,” as commonly employed in our language, has nothing moral in it.

We suggest that it would be nothing short of ridiculous to thrust into the gospel accounts such things as, “Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have changed their minds long ago in sackcloth and ashes. Or, “In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, and saying, Change your minds, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Or, “From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Change your minds, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Or, “I tell you, Nay: but, except ye change your minds, ye shall all likewise perish.” The whole populace would have been left wondering what it was they were to change their minds about—-though the inspired New Testament would resolve the mystery, for it plainly makes sin the issue in repentance, as we have shown above.

Once indeed the Bible does inform us that people “changed their minds.” In the 28th chapter of Acts we are told, when Paul was bitten by a serpent, “And when the barbarians saw the venomous beast hang on his hand, they said among themselves, No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he hath escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffereth not to live. And he shook off the beast into the fire, and felt no harm. Howbeit they looked when he should have swollen, or fallen down dead suddenly: but after they had looked a great while, and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds”—-being convinced by the contrary evidence—-”and said that he was a god.” And here it would be as ridiculous to say they repented, as to say “Change your minds” where the Bible does say “Repent.” Repentance is a moral revolution. These barbarians’ change of mind had nothing moral in it. Having formed one opinion, on very slight evidence, mixed with superstitious notions of their own, they were soon convinced of the contrary by other evidence, and so “changed their minds.” But this is expressed in the Greek by a word wholly different from “repent,” and the two things are as diverse as salt and pepper. The one is a moral change, the other is not.

In days gone by it was common to say, “amend your lives,” where we now say “repent,” and some of the early translators of the English Bible rendered the word this way. Myles Coverdale has in Luke 13:3, “I tell you naye, but excepte ye amende yourselues, ye shal all perishe likewyse,” and in Luke 17:3, “Yf thy brother trespace agaynst the, rebuke him: and yf he amende, forgeue him.” The Geneva Bible reads in Luke 15:7, “I say vnto you, that likewise ioye shalbe in heauen for one sinner that conuerteth, more then for ninetie and nine iuste men, which nede none amendement of life,” in Luke 16:30, “but if one came vnto them from the dead, they will amend their liues,” and in Rev. 2:5, “Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first workes: or els I will come against thee shortly, and will remoue thy candlesticke out of his place, except thou amende.”

Such a rendering we think immeasurably superior to “change your minds.” But if “change your minds” is too weak, “amend your lives” is no doubt too strong, for it would seem to make “works meet for repentance” the essence of repentance, rather than the fruit of it. But repentance and works meet for repentance are not the same thing, for though a man may not repent without amending his life, he may amend his life without repenting. Repentance is the determination, and that before God, to amend his life. So Paul preached, to all men everywhere, “that they should repent, and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance.” (Acts 26:20). And though the Geneva Bible translates this, “that they shulde repent, and turne to God, and do workes worthie amendment of life,” we think the translation “amendment of life” is likely to cause doctrinal if not practical confusion. Nor is there any need. “Repent” and “repentance” are perfectly adequate, and everybody knows what they mean, except perhaps certain antinomians, who have been indoctrinated in a false definition of the words, and we strongly suspect that even they know the true meaning in their heart of hearts, for it would be difficult to miss this, with a Bible in their hands.

Glenn Conjurske

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